Library of Alexandria
Library of Alexandria

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Library of Alexandria

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Manguel, A. (2006) The Library at Night, New Haven, CT and London, Yale University Press, pp. 78–9.

[p. 78] In 2004 the most popular of all Internet search services, Google, announced that it had concluded agreements with several of the world’s leading research libraries – Harvard, the Bodleian, Stanford, the New York Public Library – to scan part of their holdings and make the books available on-line to researchers, who would no longer have to travel to the libraries themselves or dust their way through endless stacks of paper and ink. Though, for financial and administrative reasons, Google cancelled its project in July 2005, it will doubtless be resurrected in the future, since it is so obviously suited to the capabilities of the Web. In the next few years, in all probability, millions of pages will be waiting for their on-line readers. As in the cautionary tale of Babel, “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do,” and we shall soon be able to summon up the whole of the ghostly stock of all manner of Alexandrias past or future, with the mere tap of a finger.

The practical arguments for such a step are irrefutable. Quantity, speed, precision, on-demand availability are obviously important to the researching scholar. And the birth of a new technology need not mean the death of an earlier one: the invention of photography [p. 79] did not eliminate painting, it renewed it, and the screen and the codex can feed off each other and coexist amicably on the same reader’s desk. In comparing the virtual library to the traditional one of paper and ink, we need to remember several things: that reading often requires slowness, depth and context; that our electronic technology is still fragile and that, since it keeps changing, it prevents us many times from retrieving what was once stored in now superseded containers; that leafing through a book or roaming through shelves is an intimate part of the craft of reading and cannot be entirely replaced by scrolling down a screen, any more than real travel can be replaced by travelogues and 3-D gadgets.

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